Joan Ashby was frank with Martin Manning right from the start: “There are two things you should know about me. Number one: My writing will always come first. Number two: Children are not on the table. I possess no need, primal or otherwise, for motherhood.”
Martin had grinned, looked beneath the checked tablecloth—“In case those imps you don’t want are hiding”—then checked what remained in her wineglass. “I’m flattered,” he said, “but isn’t this sort of discussion premature?”
She had vigorously shaken her head. “Truth is never premature. I don’t want to mislead you.”
When it was no longer too early for that sort of discussion, when they had acknowledged the seriousness of their love, when Joan had reiterated those two truths about herself twice more—in Battery Park, staring out at the Statue of Liberty, all green and distant, the waves churning in a spring wind, and on a bench in Central Park, reading the Sunday paper, both of them sweating in the humid hundred-degree heat—Martin never hesitated, always answered the same way.
Once, he raised her concerns himself. With both hands over his heart, Martin declared, “My own life plans don’t require a version of myself writ small. I don’t need anything more, except for whatever time you give me. We’re everything together, as special as any couple could be.” She laughed because he understood, because he was lovely, because she never intended to be the recipient of such romanticism, but she thought he had the equation wrong: the specialness each possessed had nothing to do with them as a couple.
On a wintery Sunday morning they made a definitive pact: if they moved forward together into the future, they would not sideline their lives with procreation. Joan asked Martin to swear to it as they lay in her bed in her East Village apartment, then made him sit up and raise his right hand and repeat it again. When he said, “I promise. No children,” snow began falling, hushing the city, and they stayed beneath the covers the whole of the day. By nightfall, when Martin was tossing his things into his weekend bag, the snow had ceased, but outside it was still silent, not a car or a taxi or a bus tracking through the white drifts that had accumulated. Joan’s block, crusty and exhausted, had turned into a winter wonderland.
From her living-room windows, four floors above the ground, Joan watched Martin inching across the coated street in his loafers, his footsteps the first to mar the pristine. He was heading uptown to Penn Station for the 6:05 back to Baltimore. He hurtled over a curbside snowbank, landed on the sidewalk, and stopped. He found her at the window, waved madly, then turned the corner and was out of sight. Fifteen minutes later, Joan was in her flannel pajamas at the nicked wooden dining table long used as a desk, reading the proofs of Fictional Family Life, its publication imminent. She looked at the vase Martin had brought her, filled not with hothouse winter flowers, but with the red licorice vines he had learned she liked, the treat she indulged in judiciously, when the work was going well. She proofread late into the night, aware she was smiling, and that she had never worked with such a look on her face. A month after that, Dr. Martin Manning asked Joan Ashby to marry him.
Their wedding was modest. The ceremony, eloquent and stirring, unfolded in a small Manhattan park, with rows of red and yellow tulips in the beds, their petals flaring and open. Joan’s dress, long and white, was unadorned, simple, her slender neck, her shoulders, all bare in the early spring sun, her black hair in a braid peppered with tiny white flowers. Martin wore a smart black suit and a serious tie.
There was no family in attendance. Martin’s father, whom Joan met only once after they were engaged, had been interred in the Columbarium of the US Naval Academy in Annapolis on a rainy day three months before. And when Joan reluctantly phoned her parents to invite them, upending their pattern of brief every-other-month calls, her mother said, “Impossible, mais nous vous souhaitons bonne chance.” Impossible, but we wish you good luck. Eleanor Ashby was not French and had never been to France, but she fluently—though rarely—spoke the oft-proclaimed language of her true soul, had insisted on Joan’s fluency in it as well. For Joan, it was debatable whether Eleanor Ashby actually had a soul, but the French bonne chance indicated that her mother was attempting to be kind. Her use of the formal vous, rather than the intimate tu, an apparent denial of their mother-daughter relationship, did undercut that kindness, but it was better than Joan had expected. “Merci, maman,” Joan said, relieved she would not have to see them.
The guests were not evenly divided; the groom’s far outnumbered the bride’s. All of Martin’s college and medical-school pals made the trek from whichever states had become home, and ten of his new colleagues from Rhome carpooled together from the campus twenty miles outside of town that housed the hospital and the lab. But Annabelle Iger was there, Joan’s former colleague at Gravida Publishing and the closest she had ever come to a best friend, along with the few other friends Joan had managed to make, and keep, during the years before her literary career exploded.
After she and Martin said their vows and slipped the wedding bands on each other’s fingers and engaged in their first marital kiss, the small party whooped and clapped. Annabelle Iger said afterward to them both, “Your love makes me desire love in my bones, but only for the short term.” Martin said, “Go find my friend Max. He’s funny and smart and he thinks as you do,” and Joan whispered to Iger, “He has good lips, too.” At a nearby French bistro slightly down at the heel, the wedding party drank and feasted and danced until nearly four in the morning.
In the afternoon they woke and Martin said, “Wife,” and Joan said, “Husband,” such a strange word in her mouth, a word she never expected to apply to a man in her bed, or out of it. She wondered what else it meant, besides spouse, mate, to use sparingly or economically, to conserve. Then they tangled their limbs together again.
The following evening, Martin put Joan’s suitcase into the trunk of an idling cab, before he too left the city, headed back to Rhome, to their newly purchased house, to his practice and research, while his bride flew away, for the foreign leg of the Fictional Family Life book tour. Her apartment had been emptied out, the landlord given notice of her permanent departure, and when she returned to the States, it would not be to JFK or LaGuardia, but to an airport near Washington, DC.
Then Joan was flying across the ocean, sitting on trains, unpacking in glamorous foreign hotel rooms, reading to large and small gatherings, signing books, afterward spending the evenings with bookstore owners, critics, reviewers, emissaries of her overseas publishers, fellow writers, listening to trenchant debates about which new novels thrilled, which writers had been wrongfully blessed and did not deserve the worshipful, florid praise, whose work was unjustly overlooked, the glare eventually finding Joan again, a press of queries about what made her write, why she wrote what she wrote, when her first novel would be published.
Every day she composed a special postcard for Martin and sent it on its way, a pretty stamp in the corner from the country she was in. When they managed to talk on the phone, he said, “It’s great getting mail in our new mailbox. I read your postcards and kiss your signature, then tack up each card on the kitchen wall.” When she came home to Rhome, Martin had made a collage of all of her words.
It was two months since they married, three weeks since she had settled in Rhome, and Joan’s tall, handsome husband was kneeling down, as he had not kneeled when he proposed, and the hands his colleagues called miraculous were pressed against her flat belly.
Joan placed her own hands on his head, in a kind of benediction, feeling the silk of his brown hair with fingers that were naked except for the slim platinum wedding band on the fourth. The ring was still an unfamiliar weight, a sight that surprised her several times a day when she looked up from the page rolled into her typewriter and caught its silvery flash.
Her new husband was on his knees on the painted wooden floor in her new study in their new house. The floor was maple, but the stain had taken on a curious orange tinge, and when Joan was finally there, her boxes unpacked, her last appearance in front of a huge crowd at Barnard a memory that still made her tingle, the laughter that rose up when she said Martin did not want children either, only wanted to know if they might one day get a dog, the two of them had painted the floor white. Three separate coats on three successive Saturdays until the floor in her study gleamed.
Martin was kneeling and the heat from his hands passed through her thin sweater, branding her skin, and Joan found herself praying, not to God, or a god, for religion had not been part of her upbringing, but she was invoking her own personal kind of prayer, the soothing she had taught herself in childhood, reciting favorite words—horological, malevolent, splattering, spackled, fossicking, bedlamite, shambles, oblate, coruscating, shambolic, furbelowed, aperçu—this silent recitation, word after word, a beseeching, a cry for remembrance, for benevolence, for fairness. One by one, the words clicked through her mind, and then Martin looked up at her and he smiled and Joan saw his smile and felt a rip of fear, her eyes retreating from the beatific look on his face, landing on a corner of the room where she saw they had missed a place, a strip of wood not quite as brightly white as the rest.
“Joan,” he said, gripping her belly, as if his long surgeon fingers might cradle the infinitesimal and unwanted that her body was harboring. There was a gauzy shimmer across his brown eyes. She had never seen him shed a tear, not even at his father’s funeral, but the threat was there now, and another favorite word passed through her mind, trembling, because there were trembling teardrops poised behind Martin’s long lashes, ready to fall, and this time she could not look away, could only stare back at him as her body tightened, turned rigid, her heart all at once shocked into pounding, white noise filling her ears, her mind still reciting words—chaotic, barbate, insufflation, prodrome, otiose, misprision—but still she heard him say, “I’ve never been so happy.”
She watched him rise from the floor. He was speaking again. “We’ve got to celebrate. I’ll go out and get some champagne and something sparkling and nonalcoholic for you.”
And then he was out of her study, his tread heavy on the maple floors as he walked through the rest of their small house, the rattle of his keys as he plucked them from the bowl on the shelf next to the back door, the door slamming, his old Toyota revving up.
The shock did not relax its grip on her. She stood rooted to the white wooden floor, stunned that Martin did not remember their pact, the oath he took twice that snowy day not six months before, that his instinct was not hers, to do away with it completely, right from the start. A quick operation, she barely anaesthetized, her womb left clean and uninhabited, barer even than the bare rooms in this new house of theirs.
From The Resurrection of Joan Ashby. Used with permission of Flatiron Books. Copyright © 2017 by Cherise Wolas.